Great Books College

Great Books colleges offer a broad-based liberal arts education with a curriculum centered on reading and discussing those writings that have been most significant in the formation of Western culture. Taken together, these writings constitute a “Great Conversation.” Through several centuries of this extended conversation the most important issues facing mankind surface time after time: Who is man? Who is God? What is the relationship between them? How ought one live one’s life? Studying the writings of the foremost thinkers of our culture gives students the opportunity to examine different perspectives on these important questions. In a sense, students learn at the feet of great thinkers.

Like other Great Books colleges, then, Gutenberg College’s curriculum centers around the discussion, in small groups, of these consequential works.

[Note: The following article is included to help the reader understand what thought processes and criteria have been used to decide which books to include in the “cannon” of the great books. While Gutenberg College has no fundamental disagreement with the works selected by the committee discussed below, we have chosen to include in our great books curriculum additional works that are more current and that demand being understood in order to fully appreciate the works’ impact on modern culture.]

Selecting Works for the 1990 Edition of the Great Books of the Western World
by Dr. Mortimer Adler

A word about context: The discussion on the Western Canon mailing list had been concerned with whether Voltaire’s Candide is or is not a great book. Adler’s remarks [which follow] were prompted by this question.

As Editor in Chief of GBWW’s second edition I worked with an editorial board that consisted of the following persons: Douglas Allanbrook, Senior Tutor and Associate Dean, St. John’s College, Annapolis, Maryland; Jacques Barzun, Provost Emeritus, Columbia University, and literary adviser, Charles Scribner’s Sons; Norman Cousins, Professor of Medicine, University of California at Los Angeles; John Kenneth Galbraith, Professor of Economics, Harvard University; Heinz R. Pagels, Director, New York Academy of Sciences; Lord Quinton, former Chairman, The British Library Board, London, and also former President, Trinity College, Oxford. [1]

In addition to these associates, we formed an international committee of consultants to whom the nominations made by the editorial board would be sent for approval or disapproval, as well as for comments and recommendations.

When we had completed a second draft of the nominations for inclusion in or omission from the second edition, the next and final step in constituting the contents of the set involved submitting this second draft for consideration to the Board of Editors and to the University Advisory Committees.

The members had been provided in advance with various lists of nominees for addition to the set, especially twentieth-century authors and titles. I opened this meeting by stating the criteria for selection that Hutchins and I had employed in the 1940s when we met with a similar editorial board to decide on the authors and titles for inclusion in Great Books of the Western World. Now as then, considerations of space played a critical role. Some things had to be rejected or eliminated to prevent the set from becoming economically unfeasible to produce, distribute, or purchase and use.

At the end of a long and, on the whole, pleasantly harmonious session, we came up with our first draft of authors and titles. Before this draft was submitted to our international committee of consultants and other groups, a footnote had to be added to it stating the authors and titles in the first edition that we proposed to drop from the second. There were four: the “Conics” of Apollonius of Perga; Joseph Fourier’s Analytical Theory of Heat; Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, and Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne. The first two of these were thought to be mathematical treatises of unusual difficulty for most readers to comprehend.

We then proceeded with submitting our first draft to our international committee of consultants, to Britannica’s Board of Editors, and to our University Advisory Committees. This process involved much discussion and correspondence over many months, at the end of which we came up with a final draft of the second edition’s table of contents, including a list of the new and much better translations that we sought to acquire from their publishers.

Before I state the three criteria that our editorial board employed for its first draft selections and that we asked all the persons we consulted to keep in mind in judging what we submitted to them, let me say that at no point did we attain unanimity. One hundred percent agreement is too much to expect in proceedings of this kind. However, where there were unresolved disagreements, these did not exceed more than 10 percent; i.e., the items about which such disagreement occurred were less than 10 percent of the whole. That, it seems to me, is remarkable, and also sufficient to rely upon.

When all these preliminaries were completed and after the work of editorial production had begun, I found myself dissatisfied with three decisions we had made (much less than 10 percent of the whole). I regretted dropping the “Conics” of Apollonius, which was not much more difficult than Euclid’s Elements, which we retained in the set. I thought we were wrong in dropping Fielding’s Tom Jones, as the frequency in the Syntopicon of references to its contents attested, indicating its substantial presence in the great conversation. And I thought we were wrong in adding Voltaire’s Candide. Voltaire is a great author and one of enormous influence, but by our three criteria for selection, Candide is not a great book. [2]

What were those three criteria of selection? The first was the book’s contemporary significance—relevance to the problems and issues of the twentieth century. The books were not to be regarded as archaeological relics—monuments in our intellectual tradition. They should be works that are as much of concern to us today as at the time they were written, even if that was centuries ago. They are thus essentially timeless—always contemporary, and not confined to interests that change from time to time or from place to place.

The second criterion was their infinite rereadability or, in the case of the more difficult mathematical and scientific works, their studiability again and again. Most of the 400,000 books published each year are not worth carefully reading even once; many fewer than 1,000 each year are worth reading more than once. When, infrequently in any century, a great book does appear, it is a book worth reading again and again and again. It is inexhaustibly rereadable. It cannot be fully understood on one, two, or three readings. More is to be found on all subsequent readings. This is an exacting criterion, an ideal that is fully attained by only a small number of the 511 works that we selected. It is approximated in varying degrees by the rest.

The third criterion was the relevance of the work to a very large number of great ideas and great issues that have occupied the minds of thinking individuals for the last twenty-five centuries. The authors of these books take part in the great conversation, not only by reading the works of many of their predecessors, but also by discussing many of the 102 great ideas treated in the Syntopicon. In other words, the great books are the books in which the great conversation occurs about the great ideas. It is the set of great ideas that determines the choice of the great books.

In a book entitled The Great Conversation, which is not a part of the set’s second edition but which accompanies it as an introduction to the set and as a guide to its use, we have demonstrated this point by two devices. One is something that we called the Author-to-Author Index, which shows how many of each author’s predecessors that author has cited in his work. The other is the Author-to-Idea Index, which shows in how many of the 102 great ideas treated in the Syntopicon readers will find references to that author’s work on one or more topics, usually many. These two indices, along with the Syntopicon itself, are clear evidence of the reality of the great conversation, in which the great authors and the great books have participated.

By this criterion, the difference between great books and good books is not a difference in degree, but a difference in kind. There is not a continuum that has poor books on the far left, average books in the middle, good and very good books on the right, and a few Great Books on the far right.

As I have recently written elsewhere, the adjective “great” in the phrase “great books” derives its primary meaning from its use in the phrase “great ideas.” There are many other criteria by which people make up diverse lists of the books they wish to honor by calling them “great books.” But from the primary significance of the adjective “great” as applied to the great ideas is derived the significance of that adjective as used in the phrase, “the great conversation.”

In other words, we chose the great books on the basis of their relevance to at least 25 of the 102 great ideas. Many of the great books are relevant to a much larger number of the 102 great ideas, as many as 75 or more great ideas, a few to all 102 great ideas. In sharp contrast are the good books that are relevant to less than 10 or even as few as 4 or 5 great ideas. We placed such books in the lists of Recommended Readings to be found in the last section in each of the 102 chapters of the Syntopicon. Here readers will find many twentieth-century female authors, black authors, and Latin American authors whose works we recommended but did not include in the second edition of the Great Books.

To complete the picture of the criteria that controlled our editorial process of selection, it is necessary for me to mention a number of things that we definitely excluded from our deliberations.

We did not base our selections on an author’s nationality, religion, politics, or field of study; nor on an author’s race or gender. Great books were not chosen to make up quotas of any kind; there was no “affirmative action” in the process.

In the second place, we did not consider the influence exerted by an author or a book on later developments in literature or society. That factor alone did not suffice to merit inclusion. Scholars may point out the extraordinary influence exerted by an author or a book, but if the three criteria stated above were not met, that author or book was not to be chosen. Many of the great books have exerted great influence upon later generations, but that by itself was not the reason for their inclusion. [3]

In the third place, a consideration not operative in the selection process was the truth of an author’s opinions or views, or the truth to be found in a particular work. This point is generally misunderstood; many persons think that we regard the great books as a repository of mankind’s success in its ever-continuing pursuit of the truth. That is simply not the case. There is much more error in the great books than there is truth. By anyone’s criteria of what is true or false, the great books will be found to contain some truths, but many more mistakes and errors.



1. This editorial board, especially Jacques Barzun, made many recommendations of authors and works to be included or eliminated.

2. One other omission that was probably a mistake on our part was not including references to the Koran (qur’an) along with the Old and New Testament in the Reference Section of the 102 chapters of the Syntopicon.

3. This negative consideration applies, in my judgment, to Voltaire and his Candide. It also applies to the German philosopher Leibniz and his works. Just think of the influence exerted by Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Permission to use granted by Center for the Study of The Great Ideas.


Good Books vs. Great Books
by Mortimer J. Adler

This controversy focuses on the books that should be a part of one’s general education. It is a dispute about the traditionally recognized canon of the monuments of Western literature in all fields—works of mathematics and science as well as works of poetry, drama, and fiction, and also works of biography, history, philosophy, and theology. Here we are confronted with current attacks upon the canonical list of great books and the responses that those attacks have elicited.

I am involved in this controversy—as associate editor of the first edition of the Great Books of the Western World, published in 1952, and as editor in chief of the second, much expanded edition, published in 1990. The second edition differed from the first in many respects: new translations, a revised Syntopicon, and six volumes of twentieth-century authors that did not appear in the first edition, as well as fifteen authors added in the period from Homer to Freud. As in the case of the first edition, so in the case of the second, our Editorial Board and the large group of advisers whom we consulted did not agree unanimously about the authors to be included; but in both cases there was ninety percent agreement. That, in my judgment, is all one can expect in a matter of this kind.

I would like to call your attention to two things about the second edition. In writing an introductory essay, which appeared in a volume that accompanied the set, entitled The Great Conversation, I anticipated the controversy that the second edition of the Great Books of the Western World would arouse. This did not arise before. In the 1940s, when we were engaged in producing the first edition, “Eurocentric” was not current as a disapprobative term. There was no hue and cry about the absence of female authors; nor had blacks cried out for representation in the canon. In those earlier decades of this century, students and teachers in our colleges and educators in general were not concerned with multiculturalism in our educational offerings.

The second edition contains female authors, some in the nineteenth and some in the twentieth century, but no black authors; and it is still exclusively Western (i.e., European or American authors) with none from the four or five cultural traditions of the Far East.

The controversy over the desirability of multiculturalism having arisen in the late 1980s, I took account of it in my introductory essay, pointing out carefully the criteria in terms of which the authors were selected for inclusion, explaining the difference between the five hundred or so great works included in the set and the thousands of good books listed in the Recommended Readings at the end of each of the 102 chapters in The Syntopicon. These lists included many female and many black authors, but none still from the Far East.

These exclusions were not, and are not, invidious. The difference between great and good books is one of kind, not of degree. Good books are not “almost great” or “less than great” books. Great books are relevant to human problems in every century, not just germane to current twentieth-century problems. A great book requires to be read over and over, and has many meanings;* a good book needs to have no more than one meaning, and it need be read no more than once.

I also explained but did not apologize for the so-called Eurocentrism of the Great Books of the Western World by pointing out why no authors or works from the four or five distinct cultural traditions in the Far East were included or should be included. The Western authors are engaged in a great conversation across the centuries about great ideas and issues. In the multicultural traditions of the Far East, there are, perhaps, as many as four or five great conversations about different sets of ideas, but the authors and books in these different cultural traditions do not combine these ideas in one Far Eastern tradition, nor do they participate in the great conversation that has occurred over the last twenty-five centuries in the West. There are undoubtedly great, as distinguished from good, books in all of these Far Eastern traditions.

I did not anticipate that those who responded to the publication of the second edition by challenging its Eurocentrism or complaining about the fact that its authors were still for the most part dead white males, with few females and no blacks, would do so entirely in terms of announcements in the press of the list of included authors, and without reading my introductory essay and without knowing that a large number of female and black authors were included in the 102 lists in The Syntopicon of good books cited as readings recommended in addition to the great books included in the set, along with many other books by white males, none of them regarded as great.


*Note: Gutenberg College subscribes to the hermeneutical principle that an author intends only one “meaning,” although many “applications” may exist to which the author’s meaning might apply. You can find a full discussion of this distinction in The Language of God: A Commonsense Approach to Understanding and Applying the Bible, a book authored by Gutenberg College faculty members. «back»

Permission to use granted by Center for the Study of The Great Ideas.